Philistines inside the gates, part 2,037,047

This is just bile, so you may want to move on — move along, move along, says the mental policeman, nothing to be seen here that isn’t seen every other day.

But if you want to stick with me for a moment, nothing I am about to say will surprise you. In Britain, the Tories have decided today that the roads of the country should be sold off. There isn’t enough money to repair them, but there’s enough money for a commercial company to take profits out of them. Yes, you work that one out.

And while you’re doing it, spare a thought for Nicholas Hoare, one of civilization’s beacons. He owned three bookshops in Canada — OK, so it’s not a cure for cancer, nor did he discover life on Mars. But he created three points where people who wanted to think, to reflect, could come together; where people could explore more than their own small worlds. In effect, he created three small spots of mutual respect and decency.

This is not a story of changing reading habits, or the velociraptor that is Amazon. This is a much sadder, and more brutal story. Two of the three shops, faced with rent hikes of 72%, will now be forced to close. And who is this rapacious landlord? Well, it’s the government, the National Capital Commission, the crown corporation that ‘looks after’ (I use the inverted commas advisedly) federally owned land.

And the government is permitting — probably egging on — these shocking price hikes. Nothing to do with us, guv, their spokesman says. We can’t help it, can we, if the land has become more valuable. No discussion, no mediation, just pay up or piss off. We don’t care what kind of shop you have — we can probably get a fast-food place in there, or maybe even that holy grail, a mobile-phone shop. Then we’ll be laughing.

I have, here, nothing clever, nothing funny to say. Just shame on you, Canadian government. Shame on you, NCC. I hope, when you go home after a long day closing down businesses that people value more than in just dollars and cents, when you go home at night, and your children want you to read them a story, you spare a thought for Nicholas Hoare.

Was Eeyore an author?

The busy mind, never at rest. Informed by the Guardian (here) that Eeyore turns 140 today, I reread some of the quotes they attribute to that immortal donkey for the first time since childhood, and now, with the wisdom of experience, I realize with blazing clarity that Eeyore was an author.

My friends have long known me as the Eeyore of the publishing world. Everything is done with a sigh. ‘Yes, that’s great,’ I say dolefully, looking at the ground and tracing a pattern with my foot. ‘Mmm, fab,’ I add hopelessly.

But All is Now Revealed. Eeyore is my role-model in career, as well as enthusiasm. It’s not merely the popped balloon birthday presents. It’s not even the notion that someone, somewhere is having fun. It’s the knowledge that everyone, everywhere is having fun. Just. Not. Here.

And the dizzying social life that authors crave: ‘Somebody spoke to me only yesterday,’ says Eeyore bravely. ‘And was it last week or the week before that Rabbit bumped into me and said “Bother!” The Social Round. Always something going on.’

Authors across the world will hug themselves in recognition. Yes! Exactly. A surly teen stepped on my foot yesterday and said, ‘Jesus Christ! Get out of the way!’ AND IT WAS THE MOST EXCITING THING THAT HAD HAPPENED TO ME ALL WEEK. As well as the warmest social interaction.

Eeyore. Mon semblable, mon frere!

Is Wallander really ‘Goodnight Moon’?

Wallander is leaving us, says Henning Mankell. I’ve written a (fairly frivolous) piece on detectives abandoning their readers in the Telegraph this morning (here). But while I was writing it, I was actually thinking about the instalment, and how attuned we are to it.

Dickens, of course, was the king of the serial. A chunk of Oliver Twist arrived monthly (and with later novels, sometimes weekly). The family sat down and someone read it aloud, or it got passed from family member to family member to friend. Then you waited another month, thinking about the characters and the plot, wondering what was going to happen next.

Magazines didn’t replicate that formula entirely, but the connection was still forged with characters like Sherlock Holmes, who showed up every month in the Strand Magazine, with a recurring cast of characters (OK, with Watson’s revolving cast of wives: either he married a lot, or Conan Doyle couldn’t be bothered to check what he had called his wife, and just made a stab at it; I know which theory I prefer), with a familiar household setup and plot formula. Readers loved it: it was comforting to know that somewhere life goes on in a routine fashion, even as you’re dealing with the unwelcome and unexpected.

And television, of course, follows exactly the same formula. The soaps and the telenovelas are the extreme version: a standard set of characters, in a complicated plot but with familiar emotions and recurring themes. Tune in any time, and you can bathe in the warm familiarity.

And detective fiction does the same too. The conversation I recorded in the Telegraph about one of the subsidiary characters in a Donna Leon / Brunetti novel was real. (You can usually tell which conversations I’ve made up, because I always sound so much smarter in them.) But this time I was truly discussing with a friend how long a fictional character had been dating another fictional character, and where she lived. (‘In the pages of a book, you fule,’ went unspoken.)

Descendants of the golden age of detective-fiction are known as ‘cosies’. I had always thought it was for their fairy-tale formula of restoring order to chaos, to the happily-ever-after ending where the ‘bad’ character is corralled, separated from all the other characters who are therefore, by definition, ‘good’, and harmony prevails. But writing this piece, I wonder if the ‘cosy’ element refers as much to the nursery love of the familiar. Just as we needed, as children, to hear Goodnight Moon over and over, in exactly the same setting, in exactly the same tone of voice, no page-skipping allowed, maybe as adults in a messy, uncertain life, we love the formula, the genre-ness of detective-fiction.

I wonder if Wallander ever thought of himself as a comfort-blanket?

As Any Fule Kno: 50 Books Children ?Should Read

The Independent (god bless its little prescriptive heart) has listed the 50 books every child should have read. As we know, the Education Secretary has said every child should read a book a week (with two weeks off for good behaviour, apparently). So this is only a year’s list.

But is it? Some of the books I don’t know — blame a North American childhood for my lack of Michael Morpurgo and Moomins; other books are after my time. But some just seem odd — two books by Benjamin Zephaniah? Is he really that good? And at the expense of, say, Madeleine L’Engle’s masterpiece, A Wrinkle in Time? Or the Little House on the Prairie series? Or one of my childhood read-it-to-deaths, E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler? No Noel Streatfeild (I’d go for White Boots over Ballet Shoes, though), no What Katy Did, no Pippi Longstocking, or Rumer Godden? My own favourite for months and months one year was William Pene du Bois’ The 21 Balloons (I was astonished as an adult to learn that Krakatoa was a real place, and had truly gone up in a volcanic explosion). And, as a good Canadian, I must put in a plea for Susannah of the Mounties (although you can keep that twerp Anne of Green Gables).

Well, here is the list, but I defy anyone to read it and not miss their own favourites. Because there is nothing as evocative as childhood reading recollected in tranquillity. Or even middle age…

1.      Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

2.      Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi

3.      Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kastner

4.      Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

5.      Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken

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